Understanding pressures on science : discussion

‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’

Mark Twain

‘It is not enough for a handful of experts to attempt the solution of a problem, to solve it and then to apply it. The restriction of knowledge to an elite group destroys the spirit of society and leads to its intellectual impoverishment.’

Albert Einstein

There is widespread and growing concern among scientists about how science is funded. There is a constantly reducing amount of publicly-funded research, and globally, science funding in universities comes from industry. This has three fundamental effects:

  • funding of primary research of discovery, routine observation and testing novel hypotheses is neglected
  • research geared towards commercial advantage takes precedence because that is where the majority funding comes from
  • the undertaking of independent research that presents any potential conflict with industry-funded research in the same institution, becomes a conflict of interest that risks the industry funding being withdrawn.

Any scenario in need of research that is destined to increase commercial risk will be neglected, and any research destined to give commercial advantage will be promoted. This is seen writ large in the area of non-ionising radiation (NIEMR), in pharmaceuticals testing, in genetic modification (GM) development of any kind, and indeed in climate change and the impact of human activity. What is more, the process of peer review becomes tainted itself. How can a scientist dependent on funding by an industry, peer-review and accept for publication, research that opposes the view underlying their financial position?

Further, it becomes very difficult to publish research counter to the prevailing industry-influenced position. By way of example, whatever we think about individual efforts in novel production of energy such as over-unity devices, low-energy hydrogen production, or even cold fusion, research is doomed to publishing failure because there is a prevailing presumption that ‘it cannot be so’.

It therefore becomes a primary interest of commercial organisations to be both aware of the truth (because eventually truth will out, plus potentially litigation) whilst clouding issues and maximising profits. Starkest in this regard has been the multi-million-dollar funding by Exxon-Mobil of ‘scientific institutes’ to present counter arguments on climate change that are quite invalid, but serve to cloud the issue in the media. 0% of the climate science now records doubts that human activity contributes to climate change, yet 53% of media articles consider there is doubt. Funding science that merely creates doubt is enough (see the concept of ‘manufactured doubt’). Why? Because a fundamental part of ‘monitoring’ by regulatory, legislative, or health authorities is the review.

Scientific reviews. Whilst a valid excercise, it has to be recognised what is done with a review. The injection into the body of peer-reviewed literature of large amounts of research that fail to produce positive results on a particular issue, can very easily be done. Conditions that are known to reduce certainty are simple to build into a methodology. When the review comes round, the ‘balance’ or ‘weight of evidence’ is assessed, and expressed in terms of being ‘convincing’ or ‘compelling’. This is subjective, of course (who is compelled or not, and why?), but if one is counting papers that do or don’t support a concept, this becomes invalid. Even the assesment of papers will be built on the apparent consensus of what constitutes adequate methodology from that same body of literature.

A question of balance?

We all like balance, but let’s be aware of what this means. In today’s media especially, there is constantly a call for ‘balanced argument’. For every point of view, let’s give equal airspace to the opposite point of view. Only when the evidence is not equal on both sides, this gives the impression that experts and scientists are undecided (‘the jury is out’). This happened for too long on issues of climate change, man’s impact on the environment, and on damaging pesticides.

It is absolutely certain that a great deal of strong research exists to indicate that EM fields are damaging to living organisms, to human health and to wildlife.

So think of this: ten Victorian explorers return from Africa. Five report seeing rhinos, five say they saw no such thing. Should they have concluded that rhinos did not exist? Was the evidence ‘uncertain and ambiguous’ was ‘more research required’?

Reviews therefore must not be confused with research: evidence of absence is not the same as absence of evidence. And yet time and again the official assessment is that some potential hazard according to all the latest reviews is shown not to be harmful, despite clear observational evidence. Increasing numbers of reviews of the same research does not add one ounce to the weight of review evidence. Epidemiological research is frequently far from prolific. But do head for the research, not the reviews. The UK Health Protection Agency is not a primary research organisation, nor is ICNIRP, nor is WHO. They all review. And yet they are all regarded as expert and their views used to establish regulatory guidelines and to support what is regarded as a precuationary approach.

Is science serving us? Or has it been hijacked – destination global corporate profit?

“Science is a hard taskmaster, and in the light of mounting evidence that suggestions of toxicity are for the most part ultimately confirmed by painstaking scientific inquiry, perhaps it is time to reexamine whether scientific standards of proof of causality – and waiting for the bodies to fall – ought not to give way to more preventative health policies that are satisfied by more realistic conventions and that lead to action sooner.”

From an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine,
April 1987

Cultural Dwarfs. Ben Goldacre, Quackbusting and Corporate Science

In his 2008 book Cultural Dwarfs and Junk Journalism, Martin Walker investigates Guardian columnist and ‘quackbuster’ Ben Goldacre’s role in industry lobby groups and puts another point of view in defense of some of the people whom he has attacked.

Buy the book, or download free, but it is worth reading.

‘Health fraud activists tend not to be scientists themselves, but journalists, philosophy lecturers, sociologists and others in ‘soft’ disciplines. They claim to be on the side of Science, but when results appear which contradict their prejudices, they try to ‘debunk’ them, heap abuse on them, and finally simply ignore them.’

Jad Adams, ‘Dirty tricks to discredit alternative medicine’, i to i, April-June 1994